Fergus McAuliffe is a PhD researcher in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES), in University College Cork and a STEM Ambassador for Smart Futures.
In 2013, Fergus won FameLab Ireland, before going on to win FameLab International at the Cheltenham Science Festival with his presentation on the Wood Frog and ‘Blurring the Line between Life and Death‘.
I research the use of plants for environmental purposes. To be specific, I use willow trees to help to treat wastewater from houses. My tasks involve managing a field site where there are a number of willow wetlands set up. I also run experiments in the lab where, for instance, I look at the effect of fungi that grow on the willow roots.
There are loads of skills required – documenting all the steps involved in an experiment, talking and writing with other scientists and presenting your work to other scientists. I also do a lot of science communication to the public. This mainly involves giving talks and presentations about science in a way that is interesting, understandable and accessible to the public. A few weeks ago we ran an event on climate change and the room was packed to the rafters!
Describe a typical day?
My day starts early. If I am going to the lab, I start before 9 am. If I am going on fieldwork I usually try and get to my field site by 9.30 am. I often have to take plant measurement e.g. stem height with a measuring tape, stem diameter with a calipers.
At the moment I am doing a lot of work with microscopes. I am staining the willow roots with a special stain that highlights where the fungi are present. I then look at these through the microscope and record how many fungi there are.
This unfortunately involves a lot of being hunched over a microscope – not the best when you’re 6 foot 4! A typical day at the moment ends some time between 7 and 9pm. This is on the late side, but if something has to get finished that day, well, then, it has to get finished.
What do you like best about your job?
Finally cracking a method. There’s nothing better than having spent a while trying to get a method in the lab to work for you. Eventually, you will finally get it to work and you have a mini-eureka moment! These are the things that you remember most. Also, being (in the main) my own boss.
I set the targets and deadlines. So if I want to stay in the lab late and get loads done, I do. If I want to knock off at 5pm and go for a run in the evening, then I do. It’s up to me. As long as things get done, that’s what counts. And lastly, suncream. There’s nothing better than working outside in the field and the smell of suncream on a summer’s day reminds me of all the people stuck inside in labs and offices.
What are the main challenges?
Knowing where to draw the line with your work. As part of a PhD, there are so many different things that you could investigate. Sometimes it is hard to know what to say no to and what to further explore. So there can be lots of plans going round in circles in your head, until finally you hit on the best path to take. Also rain. And The Cold. Rain and The Cold are the enemies of a field scientist. Working outside on days where you can’t feel your finger tips and where you’re soaked through and through are long days.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
I was never told to pursue science or pushed in to it. I always had an interest since I was young. I remember going to school in the morning with my dad and having these massive quizzes as I just couldn’t get enough of facts and figures. So I guess my family facilitated my natural curiosity. When it came to crunch time at the CAO I had a good look at a lot of courses. Ultimately science courses were the ones that looked the best to me. In fact, I think all ten choices on my CAO form were science based courses.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Right now I spend a lot of my time in work as I am coming to the end of my PhD and time is of the essence. Having said that I still make time for non-science. This is as important as science! I do a lot of running, play a bit of Frisbee and am currently training for a half marathon. One of the best things about being a scientist are the travel opportunities. I have seen so much of Europe due to being a scientist.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
For Leaving Cert I took Irish, English, Maths, German, Business, Physics and Chemistry. My only regret in my subject choice was not having selected Biology too. The science subjects were those that I excelled in, so I guess I knew before I picked my subjects that I was going to end up studying science at third level.
What is your education to date?
I went to secondary school in Colaiste Choilm, Ballincollig, Co. Cork and then did a degree in Environmental Science in University College Cork.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Perseverance. So much of science is about persevering. Lab experiments go wrong, seasons go against you (some of my material was damaged in the River Lee flood of 2009) but as long as you persevere you will get there in the end. Curiosity is key. Having a real interest in finding out the answer is a huge part of being a scientist. It will make the time you spend in the lab or on fieldwork absolutely fly! Maths also plays a huge part of any science, engineering or technology course. So when you’re in school and frustrated with your maths homework stick with it. You’ll need it down the line!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
In UCC my own department – The School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES) runs a week long TY taster programme each year. We always have 25-30 students signed up and they get to do a huge range of activities – tracking, bird watching, plant cell work, fossil studies. If anyone is thinking of pursuing any sort of biology/environmental/geology course of study do get in touch with BEES as we are more than happy to have you in for the TY week!